The Joy of Teaching in Iraq

Jim Owens taught at community colleges, a state college and a private university before finding the ideal academic post.

December 20, 2010

News reports out of Iraq tend to focus on the same sad, familiar themes of violence, uncertainty and sectarianism. Among the many articles on car bombings, political stalemate and social instability, the larger story of personal and educational development in the country sometimes gets lost. In fact, the Iraqi people are moving on with their lives, and young adults are preparing themselves for careers in a country free from the ravages of sanctions and war. Students are working hard to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a new, more modern and internationally engaged society, but their efforts are seldom recognized in the international media. I’ve been in Iraq for a little over a month now, teaching mathematics at the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani (AUI-S), and I can assure you -- that’s a story worth telling.

So, what’s it like for an American educator to work with Iraqi college students in the classroom? Well, to be honest, they had me at "hello." From the first moments of my first class, I knew there was something different about these students, something special. At first I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. This was my Mathematics II section, a class of 13 students in their second year of the academic program, after having spent anywhere from one to four semesters bringing their English up to speed with university level. Mathematics II, an intermediate algebra course, is the second of two math courses in the university’s core curriculum. In Mathematics I students explore geometry through Book I of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, followed by a review of basic algebra concepts.

Working with these students that first day was fun. I wondered whether my next two classes, both sections of Mathematics I -- and therefore filled with freshmen -- would have the same feel. Three hours later, walking back to my office after meeting these two sections, I should have been exhausted: I had just spent four and a quarter hours straight in the classroom, meeting a total of 53 students in three periods of 75 minutes each. Instead, I felt exhilarated, even a bit giddy. Who knew that teaching mathematics at the college level could be this rewarding, this much fun? Four weeks later, the feeling is as strong as ever.

This is not my first teaching experience. I began teaching in the mid-1990s, first in high schools and then as a technical educator in a large software company. Since 2002, I have taught courses in mathematics, business, information technology and computer science at two community colleges, a state college and a private university. I’ve worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of students at all levels. To be sure, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some wonderful students over the years -- but never a class full of wonderful students. Never three classes full of wonderful students.

The moment I heard about AUI-S last fall, I knew I had to join its faculty. On a personal level, there was my previous experience in the Kurdistan region as a member of an Air Force civil engineering team. In the weeks immediately following the first Gulf War, my team provided humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of refugees on the Turkish-Iraqi border. I have followed developments in the region with interest ever since. More importantly, following decades of persecution and isolation, the people of this region finally have the opportunity to determine their own future. I simply could not pass up the chance to observe firsthand the formation of this new, post-conflict society.

Now, what’s so special about these Iraqi students? Let me give you a list:

  • Students here come to class wide awake and cheerful. Even those students in the 8 a.m. Mathematics II class show up on time and ready to work; the same applies to the students in the later sections.
  • Students here show up for class without a bunch of electronics. Cell phones are plentiful here, but I've never seen one in class. Last spring, at my university in the United States, I spent countless weeks wrestling with my calculus students over texting in class.
  • In both their dress and demeanor, students here display a positive attitude toward learning. There’s no "slacker" mentality. Students are nicely dressed, most at a business casual level. There are no pajamas, flip-flops, or t-shirts with profane or sexually explicit messages, nor do you see a lot of skin. These kids are dressed to learn.
  • Although my students come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, I haven’t noticed that they split up into cliques. To some extent, this may just reflect a lack of cultural understanding on my part, but my strong sense is that students work well together across these differences.
  • Students here readily raise their hands to ask or answer questions and to contribute to class discussions. (Again, the slacker mentality is totally absent.)
  • Students here have a great deal of respect for their teachers. There’s no anti-intellectual vibe, no iconoclastic edge to their demeanor. Instead, students here display a deep respect for learning and accomplishment.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the students here are willing to take risks. They readily volunteer answers to complicated questions that come up in class, and they are not afraid to openly explore unfamiliar ideas and concepts, asking numerous questions along the way. In other words, they trust me. Of course, it’s not me in particular they trust. They trust their instructors, and they trust each other. This is the aspect of teaching in Iraq that has taken me the longest time to figure out; maybe because it has been such a rare phenomenon in my previous teaching experiences.

To sum up, the young men and women I’ve had the pleasure to interact with so far at AUI-S are the perfect students. They're bright, cheerful, engaged, respectful, and highly motivated. They come to class on time, ready to learn, with all the required equipment and attitude -- and they participate eagerly.

And so, for the first time in 15 years of teaching, I feel completely free to ply my craft as an educator without boundaries, without other major concerns. Sulaimani is an extremely safe city, the local population is welcoming and respectful of our university, and my students are eager, willing participants. The only limitations on how far they can go, on how much they can achieve, are defined by the limits of my own gifts and abilities as a teacher. And there you have it. The biggest challenge I face teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan is not the threat of terrorism, cultural boundaries, or my craving for a good cup of brewed coffee -- it is to live up to my students’ expectations, to be as good and wise a teacher as they believe me to be. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me. But I have to tell you, for a teacher, it doesn’t get any better than this.


Jim Owens is a senior lecturer at the American University of Iraq - Sulaimani.


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